The ASEAN way: Moving beyond economics

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Dr Maqsudul Hasan Nuri

COOPERATION between some Asian nations in the
last few decades has stimulated increasingly com
plex and overlapping institutions. As Southeast Asia incrementally tries to integrate into a significant economic and political bloc, the scope, scale, and content of the interaction amongst states with the wider world need critical re-evaluation. Of Asia’s political-cum- economics associations, ASEAN, a regional grouping that started with five states and, later increased to ten, including, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, the Philippines and Cambodia. Since ASEAN’s formation in 1967, this once — weak regional organization — has matured into one of the most robust regional organizations in the developing world. ASEAN’s Declaration states that its mission is primarily economic growth, community-building and security cooperation. Moreover, its Charter has also explicitly articulated fundamental principles of, what is known, as the ‘ASEAN Way’: placing emphasis on national sovereignty and commitment to non-intervention in the internal affairs of member nations.
However, growing environmental issues due to climate change, are hitting Southeast Asian nations, too. The 34th ASEAN Summit reflected a new regional order in the offing: which, while grappling with strategic security concerns, aims at economic inclusion and environmental management. Unlike inter-governmental organizations of the West that bear strong ideological foundations, political groupings in Asia might be more accurately described as opaque by degrees. The reality is that Asia’s new multilateralism is still at a stage where it is best understood as an extension and intersection of national power and purpose rather than as an objective force in itself. In fact, the institutional regime codified in ASEAN Charter is well-suited to respond to environmental challenges. Given its explicit commitment to inter-state cooperation with respect to trans-boundary issues and concrete instances of regional coop towards environmental issues, existing framework bears potential of a cooperative strategy of environmental protection and eco-system management.
Some scholars think that non-interference acts as an impediment to regional cooperation on trans-boundary environmental issues, and therefore making it ill-equipped to control or mitigate ecological issues. Although the ASEAN Charter explicitly articulates a regime founded on principles of ‘independence’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of ASEAN member states, it also includes norms that run counter to the desire to preserve strict national control over domestic issues. The preamble to the Charter, for instance, notes that member states must be ‘mindful of the existence of mutual interests and inter-dependence among the peoples’ of ASEAN who are ‘bound by geography… and a shared destiny’: also, that members must ‘ensure sustainable development for the benefit of present and future generations;’ that members should be ‘committed’ to ‘enhanced regional cooperation and integration;’ and that the way forward to achieving shared goals is by ‘adhering to the principles of democracy’. Further more, Article 1 of the Charter specifically refers to terms like ’cooperatively,’ ‘inclusively,’ and ‘effectively’ in addressing ‘trans-boundary’ issues, ‘sustainable development,’ the ‘protection of the region’s environment’ and the ‘quality of life’ for its citizens.
Given this dual commitment to state sovereignty and the principle of non-interference and cooperation with trans-boundary issues (including environmental challenges), ASEAN seems to be in an impossible position wherein the pursuit of these seem paradoxical and undermine each other. However, while in practice, member states do not fully adhere to either of these imperatives. For example, even when accord is the best effort to abide by the principles of non-interference—and thus avoid meddling in the affairs of other states, simultaneously asserting absolute sovereignty over own territory — the principle is not realizable: First, ecological inter-relations between sovereign territories of states, are increasing as actions performed on the territory of one state often have ecological consequences beyond that state’s borders; two, this principle is conceptually limited to the realm of state sovereignty but implemented in liberalized global markets dominated by powerful non-state actors. Hence, the principle of non-interference is routinely transgressed by external, non-sovereign actors to respect state sovereignty in word and not necessarily in deed.
In practice, the ASEAN’s competing imperatives in tackling trans-boundary issues, including environmental protection and sustainable development seemingly contradict the norms of co-operative management of environmental regime. The semi-anarchical system which characterizes the global system and is described as consisting of two complementary features: ‘internal sovereignty’ which indicates undisputed control over inhabitants and resources while ‘external sovereignty’, meaning, ‘foreign interference’ in national affairs. The eco-systems do not respect geographical boundaries as capital flows and industrial systems interfere with the sovereignty principles. As an illustration, many landlocked states, including Laos are building a dam over Mekong river that interfere with fishing, farming and integrated hydrological systems of Thailand and Vietnam as well.
Moreover, in the liberalized global order the non-states actors do not need approval of other states; the notion of agents and of governance is a socio-linguistic construct that is inherited from special history in deployment of state and non- state actors. This very notion of state governance may get diluted by a complex network of states, state actors, discursive forces, unspoken norms and practices, socio-politics and habits created partly by way of socio-linguistic practices across different structural fields ie, economic, strategic, institutional , social or symbolic agents — promoting state or regional government. This acts as an act of evolution and cross-pollination of the system. An example is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was a complicated issue of an ‘enclosure movement’ to control depleting fisheries of world oceans. As various ASEAN States did not forfeit sovereign diverse issues to their sovereignty, the institutional arrangements emerging from traditional sovereignty were modified by giving responsibility to coastal states functionally while retaining traditional aspect for sovereignty.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about SAARC which is woefully inadequate in resolving major disputes — what to talk about movement of trade, investment flows, regional connectivity, dispute resolution and environmental concerns. If the ‘ASEAN Way’ has worked, it is difficult to reason why SAARC in neighbouring South Asia with massive issues of economic underdevelopment and environmental protection has been so tardy? In sum, solution, if any, lies in peaceful and speedy resolution of chronic disputes through direct and honest dialogue (no disputes as such are irresolvable), provided sincere intent is there for a ‘win-win’ solution and by extending perimeters to impending threats of ecological degradation and economic backwardness in South Asia. This stark realization could only come about with visionary leadership, or at worse, by occurrence of some sudden man-made or natural disasters which nobody desires. Myriad problems of good governance, timely reforms and sustainable socio- economic and technological development are a sine qua non in while striving for ‘mutual security’ or ‘cooperative security.’
—The writer is Presently Visiting Faculty, Dept of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid i Azam University Islamabad, former Adviser, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Islamabad, and ex- President, Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), Islamabad.